The Book Club on the ABC is polling Australia’s favourite books released in 2017. Wonderful, I thought. I’ll have a look at the options and enter my choices. I scrolled down the list of books, seeing many with covers and titles I recognised, but found that there was only one I had read. The 91-Storey Treehouse. A children’s book.
During the year, I’d had intentions of reading many of the books on the list; The Dry by Jane Harper, Atlantic Black by AS Patric, See What I have Done by Sarah Schmidt and Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. I even got so far as starting to read The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, but accidently left it on the train to carry on the commute without me.
But as it turns out, I’ve only read one. I felt a twinge of book shame. Had other people really read so many of these books that they could choose their ‘favourites’ among them? Assuming they have read five books on the list – a number that would give them a decent level of authority to compare the different books – does this mean that during the course of the year had solely read newly released books? Or are these on top of the bestsellers, classics, prize-winners, non-fiction and other assorted books from previous years that they might have read?
While I am more than a little book obsessed, I am by no means immune to the sense of inadequacy of not having read enough of the right books.
As people get immersed in their careers, domestic lives and children, book shame is something I’m noticing more and more, among readers, occasional readers and non-readers. It is the dismay that people express at failing to read as much as they would like, or at all. It is evident in those who complain that they haven’t read in years, since having kids, or that work has been flat out and they don’t feel like reading after a day of looking at the screen or writing reports.
A colleague recently told me that she no longer knew how to choose a book to read, as it had been so long since she had last visited a bookshop or library. She asked me where to start and a more welcome question had never been asked.
However, feeling embarrassment at a lapse in reading or a lack of enjoyment of books implies that reading is some kind of virtue, which it is not.
In a way, I see reading as being a bit like physical exercise, an activity equally considered to be virtuous and a source of shame for those who don’t regularly partake. But, essentially, exercise is a selfish pursuit, offering health benefits (and apparently some kind of endorphin rush, although I have never experienced such a thing) to those who engage in it; in the same way, reading is also merely a pleasure that offers a range of benefits to the individual.
If someone wanted to do something virtuous, they would be better off cooking a healthy meal for someone in need, calling on a lonely neighbour or learning to sew in order to save clothes from landfill.
However, book shame extends further than the act of reading itself to the choices of book a reader makes. Popular opinion would have it that books considered to be ‘literary’ novels are far more virtuous than genre fiction, regardless of the quality of either.
And it is not just genre that is a source of book shame. I worry about whether I ‘should’ be reading more books by Australian authors (yes) and more recent releases (yes), as well as more classics (yes). But where is the time?
A poll of my workmates revealed that I’m far from being the only person experiencing book shame due to a gaping hole in their knowledge of the classics. I asked my bookish colleagues to let me know what they had thought of a list of relatively well-known classic novels, including Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment and Sense and Sensibility. However, most replied sheepishly that they hadn’t read a single book on the list. Many wrote that they ‘should’ start them, if only they could find the time.
Similarly, last year, a UK government survey revealed that only four per cent of Brits had read War and Peace, although 14 per cent wished they had. Only three per cent had read Les Miserables, but 10 per cent wanted to. In the survey, Oliver Twist was the most popular classic, having been read by 21 per cent of respondents, followed by Pride and Prejudice and Little Women at 15 per cent.
Somehow, I found these findings reassuring. While literary classics might seem ubiquitous, they are actually quite rarely read. And even if they commonly appear on our friends’ bookshelves, chances are, their covers have never been opened.
This doesn’t mean that they’re not well worth reading, but that it would be doing ourselves a disservice by reading them out of a feeling that we ‘should’. After all, there’s nothing less enjoyable than reading a book that you feel pressured into reading.
Sadly, readers have to resign themselves to the fact that they will never read all of the books that they could or should. Many ‘must-reads’ and ‘unmissable’ books will remain unread and missed. While I will try to get a hold of some of this year’s releases, next year will soon be upon me and there will be a whole new batch of books to feel bad about not having read.
So, let’s call an end to book shame. Read if you want, what you want. After all, reading is a hobby and a joy, not a virtue or an obligation.